The afternoon started with an emotional speech from club legend Sandy Jardine thanking fans for their support during his battle with cancer, followed by all manner of chants and hullabaloo about titles and the rest of it, with a huge banner being unfurled which read “54 and counting”.
Rangers 3 (Little (2); McCulloch) East Stirlingshire 1 (Stirling)
Referee: Brian Colvin
Booked: East Stirlingshire (Turner; Gillespie)
Rangers may have kept their titles thanks to the good Lord Nimmo Smith but, if this match is any guide, No.55 will be a hell of a long time coming.
Rangers may have won at a canter by the end but, for much of the match, the aristocrats made heavy weather of dispatching the artisans, leaving the pitch to boos at half-time after a poor first half. It wasn’t just that they trailed East Stirlingshire 1-0 that incensed the crowd, it was the fact that some Rangers players appeared to believe that all they had to do to win was to simply turn up.
Rangers seemed to be disabused of that notion in that disappointing first period and were transformed after the break. The tempo went up, they finally deigned to close down their visitors, and they pressed forwards with an intent and purpose which had been almost totally absent before the break. Whatever Ally McCoist said during the half-time break certainly had the desired effect.
“Ally didn’t have to say much because the boys were busy having a go at each other, which was needed because we knew the first half wasn’t good enough,” admitted
skipper Lee McCulloch. “In the first half we played as a team of individuals, with a couple of the boys trying to make the headlines with shots from the byline and the rest of it. Our first-half performance showed we thought we have it [the league title] in the bag, when we don’t. In the second half we got better because we remembered that football is a team game and it showed.”
The first half was one in which frustration was the order of the day. Rangers had started brightly, man of the match Andrew Little firing off a shot in the first minute that required a smart save from visiting keeper Grant Hay but, from then on, the first half was dire stuff.
There were occasional half chances but not until McCulloch slammed a shot straight at Hay on the half hour after a beautifully free-flowing move initiated by Little deep in his own half and carried on by Kyle Hutton did Rangers really look like scoring.
The return of skipper McCulloch after seven weeks out wasn’t much help either. The big man bristled with intent and the home back four were happy enough to lump the ball up in his general direction where, despite the attentions of Ray Buchanan, he invariably won the ball. However, his headed flick-ons came to naught as none of his teammates were anticipating where the ball might end up. For much of the first half he was either bellowing at his team or holding his head in his hands. As McCoist noted afterwards, the club captain is a much better player than that.
It was little wonder that McCulloch was doing his nut. Rangers’ speed of thought veered between lackadaisical and glacial, players looking twice or three times before eventually passing, invariably laterally, by which time the recipient had been closed down. Movement was at a minimum when Rangers had the ball, and so was their closing down of East Stirlingshire.
If Rangers produced several half chances, it was no surprise that it was an increasingly confident East Stirlingshire who took the lead, as they did on their last visit to Ibrox. This time it was Andrew Stirling who did the damage, driving a low shot past Neil Alexander on 39 minutes after Paul Quinn had neatly flicked the ball into his path.
Yet after the break, Rangers were a different side. Ian Black had a shot within seconds of the restart and then the home side scored three in little over ten minutes as the visitors’ previously obdurate defence crumbled. Manager John Coughlin said afterwards that his players had given everything and, in the second half, the part-timers visibly faded against the full-timers, as has often happened this season.
Little was the first to take advantage, bundling in the ball from close range from Anestis Argyriou’s sclaffed cross after the Greek’s bullocking run took him through three would-be tacklers. Ten minutes later, McCulloch put Rangers in front, latching onto Black’s through ball before calmly rounding the keeper. One minute later Rangers had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 lead when Shire unaccountably stood off Little and the striker’s weak shot went straight through keeper Hay.
Job done, Rangers struggled to maintain their intensity, but then, with a two-goal cushion they didn’t need to. As McCoist conceded: “It’s been a fantastic 48 hours for the club, and although the first 45 minutes were not great, there was huge pressure on us to get back to winning ways, so this victory was massive.”